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Burnt Offerings

Kino // PG // October 6, 2015
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 25, 2015 | E-mail the Author
"What's the catch?", asks Ben (Oliver Reed) in one of Burnt Offerings' earliest moments. It's a fair question. He and his family have been seeking an escape from the big city for the summer, and the Allardyce estate seems entirely too good to be true. This palatial mansion in the country is in somewhat sad shape but still radiates the majesty of its glory days, and the asking price is a paltry $900 for the entire season. Catch? There's no catch. Well, the family will be responsible for the upkeep of the estate during the summer, as groundskeepers need a break now and then too. Don't worry, though; the house practically takes care of itself. Oh, and the Allardyces' elderly mother isn't in any state to vacation with her children, so the Rolf family won't entirely be alone, although she keeps to her room upstairs and likely won't ever be seen or heard. Just leave a tray of food outside her door three times a day, and all will be right with the world.

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Ben forces an awkward smile to his face and says that he and his family will discuss the rental on the way home. Taking care of a decaying mansion by their lonesome? What happens if this old lady dies under their watch? The Allardyce siblings (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart) are so offputtingly weird that his skin can't help but crawl. Upon hearing Ben's polite rejection, his wife Marian (Karen Black) is aghast. There's nothing to talk about; of course they'll take it. When they return to the mansion shortly afterwards to start their summer together, the Allardyces aren't there to greet them. An apology is found alongside the keys in an envelope taped to the door, and a fully stocked fridge and freezer more than make up for any perceived slight. Marian passes the days by eagerly scrubbing and polishing everything in sight, indulging in the home's long and storied history. Ben has a perfect opportunity to start working on his doctorate, and there's plenty of time to roughhouse with his son David (Lee Montgomery) in the pool. Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) gets to spend time with her family and barely has to lift a finger. And Mrs. Allardyce...? Sure enough, you'd never know she was even there. What the Rolf family doesn't realize, however, is that as they move into this house, the house has begun to move into them.

Burnt Offerings is a story of transformation: both in how this house changes its newfound inhabitants as well as how they -- no matter how unwittingly -- transform it. Marian devotes herself to restoring the Allardyce estate to its former luster, and the results are nothing short of miraculous. Over time, she seems to slip into another era altogether, draping herself in clothing from decades long since past and seemingly preferring the company of old photographs and LPs to that of her family. Ben finds himself alternately consumed by fury and fear, filled with murderous rage towards his son when he's not tormented by funereal nightmares of a chauffeur. Most every trace of life and vitality is soon drained from Aunt Elizabeth, slipping away to such a sad state that she's suspected of fiddling with a gas heater and nearly killing young Davey in his sleep. The strain is seared across the Rolfs' exhausted faces, but as for the mansion...? The most majestic it's looked in ages.

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Released in the wake of The Exorcist and not too long before The Amityville Horror, the simmering, atmospheric dread of Burnt Offerings may have seemed like a relic from another era when it first stormed into theaters in 1976. Objects are not violently flung around the room by some sinister, unseen force. There are no spectral apparitions. Only a handful of sequences showcase the undeniably supernatural. Despite my frequently trashy tastes in horror, I prefer this subdued approach to haunted house stories. After all, The Changeling unnerved me more with a rubber ball bouncing down a staircase than most any visual effects spectacle could hope to accomplish. In much the same way as the Rolf family reacts to the Allardyce mansion after first moving in, I was initially smitten with Burnt Offerings. The sheer volume of talent in front of the camera cannot be denied, and a gruelingly intense escalation in a swimming pool early on between father and son floored me. Much like Ben, however, the more time I spent with Burnt Offerings, the more desperate I was to run away screaming and never look back.

Filmmaker Dan Curtis cut his teeth in television, and Burnt Offerings' languid pace and uninspired direction could easily be mistaken for something out of a TV movie. It's a slow burn if you're feeling charitable or tedious and glacial if you're not. Its eerier moments are bridged by vast expanses of nothing. The nature of the house itself and of the elderly Mrs. Allardyce are all but spelled out at the very beginning, muting much of the potential tension and neutering any sense of discovery. As swift and brutal as its final moments are, parts of it are so inevitable and others so absurdly over the top that the impact is diminished as well. While the transformations that Marian and Aunt Elizabeth undergo make perfect sense from a storytelling standpoint, the movie isn't entirely certain what to do with Davey and his father. Burnt Offerings doesn't bother with a consistent character arc for Ben, who is ostensibly our point-of-view character, asking the same questions and sharing the same concerns as the audience. On the other hand, does he want to drown his son in this scene? Maybe he's cowering in fear of the skeletal, ever-smiling figure driving a hearse? What's the point of any of those nightmares in the first place? Burnt Offerings haphazardly tosses all of that in seemingly just to check off some scares. Davey is woefully underutilized, only there to occasionally be victimized and draw on viewers' protective sympathies towards children. One frustrating thing is that tormenting Ben and Davey in this way -- to repeatedly shove them towards what could be a quick and fatal end -- seems completely at odds with the ultimate goal of the house. Despite predating The Shining, there are enough similarities between the two that I couldn't help but draw some comparisons that don't exactly work in Burnt Offerings' favor.

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I've spoken with so many people over the years whose eyes double in size at the mention of Burnt Offerings, raving about how it's one of the most horrifying movies they'd ever encountered. Those with a longstanding adoration will no doubt be in awe of what Kino Lorber Studio Classics has assembled here, with a slew of newly-produced extras and a brand new transfer. It's not an easy movie for me to recommend to the uninitiated, though. For those who haven't seen Burnt Offerings before, Rent It. To longtime admirers, however, this disc is enthusiastically Recommended.

The word is that Burnt Offerings has been newly remastered for this Blu-ray release, and it shows. Though the photography is deliberately diffused and hazy at times, the overwhelming majority of the film is reasonably crisp and well-defined. I'm impressed by how nicely resolved the very fine sheen of film grain is, and the level of detail on display here can be striking. Speckling and wear are kept to a bare minimum, and this skillfully authored disc doesn't suffer from any intrusive artifacting or excessive filtering.

I have to admit to struggling with its colors somewhat. The palette is often muted, which makes sense from a storytelling standpoint, but it's surprisingly erratic. My kneejerk reaction was that there's something almost ruddy about its colors -- peering down at my notes, I mention purplish-red fleshtones several times -- although that seems less persistent as I went through the film again listening to the audio commentaries. Still, it's a little strange that Burnt Offerings will be bright and vivid one moment:

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...and dull -- often oddly colored -- the next:

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I'm certainly not expecting a gothic, supernatural-tinged drama to be a candy-colored confection. Still, there are moments when it seems as if the palette should be eye-popping, particularly the dizzying array of flowers in the screenshot above (admittedly hampered by the dissolve that follows) and what they represent. I don't have a reliable source of comparison, but every image and video I've seen elsewhere from Burnt Offerings boasts a very different set of colors. I'm not in any position to say which is the most faithful presentation, but I have my reservations. To those better acquainted with the film, I'd love to hear your thoughts. My very possibly off-base feelings about the palette aside, this is a marvelous presentation.

Burnt Offerings arrives on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

Burnt Offerings boasts a respectable DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack. Though the 16-bit lossless audio doesn't sparkle or gleam, exactly, it's clean and clear enough, surely setting it apart from the deeply critical reviews of MGM's 2003 DVD release. The ominous strings sometimes heard in the score are reinforced by a healthy amount of bass, and though cavernous reverb can be a slight nuisance at times, dialogue is consistently intelligible and well-balanced.

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Commentaries aside, there are no other audio options.

In stark contrast to MGM's lackluster DVD from more than a decade ago, Kino Lorber Studio Classics has lavished Burnt Offerings with a proper special edition.
  • Audio Commentaries: The first commentary is a holdover from the MGM DVD, featuring director/co-writer/producer Dan Curtis, actress Karen Black, and co-writer William F. Nolan. There are some interesting notes scattered throughout here: Black being four or five months pregnant during production, Curtis almost immediately backing away from his plan of shooting anamorphic, stuntman Dar Robinson overshooting a jump and nearly missing his target, and how all of the vintage photos throughout the Allardyce estate were newly-snapped. The commentary is kind of a mess overall, though. It's aimless, prone to repeating itself, kind of self-congratulatory, and falls into that stop-and-go rhythm where everyone will pause for a few minutes to silently watch the movie. With both Curtis and Black having since passed away, it's unfortunate that this is all we're able to hear from them.

    On the other hand, I can't say enough good things about the new commentary by Richard Harland Smith of Video Watchdog and Movie Morlocks fame (although I'll always remember him from Mobius!). It's a scholarly, insightful discussion, heightened by Smith's encyclopediac knowledge of genre cinema and storytelling in general. The commentary is well-researched yet interjected with so many fun asides and Smith's engaging personality that it never feels as if he's just reading off notecards. I filled nearly an entire page with highlights: everything from the film's troubled development at Fox (and unlikely rescue by Sergio Leone, of all people!) to its influence on the likes of The Changeling and The House by the Cemetery. This is a deeply rewarding listen and far and away my favorite of the extras on this Blu-ray disc.
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  • Interviews (47 min.; HD): Kino Lorber has also conducted interviews with writer William F. Nolan and actors Lee Montgomery and Anthony James.

    Nolan's thirteen minute interview touches on how Dan Curtis was all too familiar with the idea of living in a haunted house, how the unnervingly intense pool sequence was inspired by a real-life incident with Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont, and some of the key metaphors and symbolism of Burnt Offerings. Nolan does spend more time than I'd like essentially recapping the plot, but his interview is still worth a look.

    As memorable as Anthony James' nightmarish chauffeur is, his screentime in Burnt Offerings is too brief for it to really be the dominant focus of his eighteen minute interview. This wildly engaging storyteller instead speaks about his career as a whole, including memorably creepy performances in In the Heat of the Night, Unforgiven, and Return to Witch Mountain. Along with several wonderful tales of his time in Hollywood, James speaks philosophically about art in general and his well-regarded memoir.

    As with James, Lee Montgomery also has the warmest remembrances of Bette Davis, one of the key highlights of this sixteen minute conversation. It's a bit strange that Oliver Reed isn't much of a focus throughout the other extras with the cast and filmmakers, but Montgomery more than makes up for it with some amazing :hiccup!: stories about the legendary actor and his rowdy entourage. Along with some terrific comments about how he was cast on the spot and a bomb threat at the actors' hotel, Montgomery also shows off his screenplay from Burnt Offerings with personalized autographs from the entire cast.

  • Portraits of Fear: Burnt Offerings' Family Album (3 min.; HD): Clumsily labeled as "Animated Footage of Images" on the menu, this feature highlights a slew of production stills, paperback covers, lobby cards, and handbills from across the globe.

  • Trailer (6 min.; mostly SD): Burnt Offerings' trailer is presented twice here: once in its original form and a second time with commentary by Trailers from Hell fanatic Steve Senski. The trailer is low resolution in both instances, although the introduction by Senski is in HD.

The Final Word
Depending on your perspective, Burnt Offerings either offers a return to a more classic, subdued approach to horror, or it's a tedious, uninvolving slog that squanders its immensely talented cast with far too few standout moments. I'd been told by a great many people, a great many times that Burnt Offerings ranks among the most terrifying films they'd ever seen, and colored with nostalgia, I can see how that might be true. As deeply as I love this general approach to haunted house tales, this is far too slow a burn: its meandering pace, its insistance on telegraphing its key plot twists from the outset, and a sinister entity preying on its inhabitants with little internal logic or consistency.

I wouldn't recommend Burnt Offerings as a purchase sight-unseen, but those who know and love the film will find much to appreciate here, with a robust presentation (even if the colors don't look quite right to my eyes) and a healthy selection of new extras. The uninitiated may consider opting for a rental first, but otherwise...? Recommended.

Oh, and Yes...
...that is the mortuary from Phantasm.
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